Animal Treatment

Where’s the Oversight? Food Animal Production Breeds Antibiotic Resistance

A resurgence in the discussion of antibiotic (over)use in large-scale animal agriculture has emerged in light of the antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak linked to ground turkey.

A group of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the FDA on Tuesday urging it to speed up the implementation of guidelines to help manage drug use in food animal production. The FDA has already received over 500 comments on a draft guidance released last summer that recommends two principles:

(1) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health, and

(2) The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to those uses that include veterinary oversight or consultation.

chicken_barn_hmNo timeline on the document has been announced, but the change from automatically giving livestock antibiotics in their feed and water daily (to prematurely avoid animal sickness and hasten growth, thus expediting their time to market), to only treating them when a real medical concern exists, would be a drastic reduction.

According to the FDA, 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are given to food-producing animals, the vast majority for non-therapeutic purposes. The resulting increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs," has many public health advocates concerned, with constant criticism of the agency's exceedingly slow and cumbersome attempts to address a serious problem.

A study published today in Environmental Health Perspectives found that conventional poultry farmers who switched to organic practices (ending their use of antibiotics) lowered the rates of bacteria resistant to drugs. Robert Lawrence, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (which funded the research in its early stages), said the findings "confirm what has long been suspected but never documented in the U.S."

As deadly outbreaks regrettably continue, and more dangerous "superbugs" inhibit treatment of foodborne illnesses, adequate oversight remains past due. It’s increasingly essential for the government to acknowledge the problem -- or at least allow transparency in the conversation (unlike the recent move by USDA to take down research from its website that links antibiotic use in animals with resistant bacteria) -- as well as hold industry accountable when its practices put the public's health at risk.

Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Hog Farm Whistleblower Proves Undercover Videos’ Importance

An undercover video released Wednesday documents the shocking treatment of hogs at one of the nation's largest pork production facilities.

The footage -- which shows pigs being thrown across the room, and being castrated and having their tails removed without painkillers -- was taken by advocacy group Mercy for Animals at Iowa Select Farms from mid-April to mid-June of this year, just as Iowa state officials were debating a proposed bill that would criminalize such recordings.

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Industry Organizes Study on Egg Farm Conditions

The Sacramento Bee reported on a new three-year research project that aims to study various types of housing for egg-laying hens and their impact on food safety, worker safety, environmental impact, animal welfare and food affordability. It all sounds well and good on the surface until you look at who is actually putting the study together and in what context. Big industry has initiated this effort, labeled "the first of its kind," as a means to supposedly fill the gap in scientific knowledge around egg production. But really this is nothing new—industry exploring how best to protect its pocket.

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Proposed Anti-Whistleblower Laws Threaten Food Integrity

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A commercial meat chicken production house in Florida (Source: USDA)

When it comes to bringing horrific truths to the public eye, undercover footage and images are often an effective outlet for whistleblowers who otherwise risk retaliation when speaking up. Such use of media to promote transparency in our food system has come under attack, however, in recently proposed legislation.

Florida state Senator Jim Norman (R-Tampa) introduced a bill that criminalizes those who photograph farms without written consent of the owner, making the act a first-degree felony in Florida. Animal advocacy groups have fervently criticized the bill for "comparing a potential whistleblower who might expose the realities of factory farming…with those who commit murder or armed robbery." Rather than targeting the structures within Big Ag that lead to violations such as inhumane handling and stifle workers' concerns regarding such violations, Senator Norman is attacking the efforts that threaten the industry's ability to keep them in place.

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Political Hierarchy Stifles Communication at USDA

Effective government cannot occur without open communication, where staff feel safe to speak their mind in a professional setting. A recent firing of an agricultural marketing specialist because he expressed his opinions has put the U.S. Department of Agriculture under scrutiny, especially in light of the Obama administration's stated commitment to policies that encourage "free and open inquiry" among scientists and technical experts.

usda_organicWith 20 years of organic farming experience under his belt, Mark D. Keating commented on the National Organic Standards Board's (NOSB) recommendations concerning Animal Welfare, and was soon after terminated from the USDA's National Organic Program for doing so.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a non-profit group (and sister organization of GAP) that assists local, state and federal public employees, is calling for Keating to be reinstated, making the argument that he was not in contradiction with official policy but rather aiding an advisory panel in forming policy. In a letter to the agency, PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein writes:

The instruction which Mr. Keating was fired for violating is additionally troubling because it is ambiguous and internally inconsistent. It directs NOP staff to “serve as technical experts, provide advice, perhaps pose questions to the NOSB,” and yet not “interject personal opinions on issues, especially when no NOP position has been developed.” Where is one to draw the line between providing advice and posing questions as part of one’s job, and interjecting personal opinions where there is no official NOP position, which can result in losing one’s job? The only way to be sure of compliance is to remain silent.

The way things are set up for discussion ultimately make it impossible for honest dialogue at the NOP and for Keating to utilize his background experience for which he was hired. If your only options are to repeat the agency's stance or to keep quiet, what does that mean for the overall work environment?

AlterNet reports:

In an interview, Mr. Keating said the official reasons given for his termination were a "complete fabrication." He added, "I was the guy who knew too much."

Keating says he doesn't have any evidence to back the notion that corporate interests were at play, but he did admit that criticism of giant agribusiness "by sustainable farming advocates has led to 'hurt feelings' in the industry."

The article also highlights the recent survey released by GAP partner Union of Concerned Scientists that shows USDA scientists and inspectors' concern that their work in food safety is hindered by "political interference." Keating's experience appears to fall in place as part of an agency trend. Rather than feeling pressured by a political agenda, government employees should feel protected enough to do their job to the best of their ability.

Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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Antitrust Battle Unveils Egg Price Conspiracy

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Photo via wikimedia user David Shankbone

Grocery shoppers may have noticed a significant increase in the price of eggs in the last decade. A recent lawsuit blames an egg cartel that allegedly manipulated the market to inflate prices.

The plaintiff, a Maryland-based unit of the French food service giant Sodexo, accuses the United Egg Producers trade group and leading egg farmers of conspiring to limit supply in order to increase demand.

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Eggs and Chickens and Lawsuits, Oh My!

For many consumers, when it comes to thinking about how food reaches their plates, their thought process leads to "I just don't want to know." Staying in the dark allows them to eat cheap, processed food from large grocery or restaurant chains without feeling any guilt over the questionable practices that lead to such affordable prices. In today's economy, who can blame them? But it's getting to the point where this ignorance about the food industry affects a lot more than your dollars.

chicksThis past Tuesday, the FDA announced that the Iowa egg farm responsible for the summer's widespread Salmonella outbreak has cleaned up two of its barns and that these facilities may resume sending out shipments of shell eggs. However, "a company spokeswoman declined to say where the eggs would be sold." Even though these two barns can produce more than 800,000 eggs a week that will reach stores all over the country, shoppers who purchase them will be clueless that their eggs come from Iowa, let alone the same facility that caused them to reconsider which products they bought (if any) while outbreak headlines were dominating the news.

Whether or not the company has truly cleaned up its act, it's clear that those who dominate sectors of the industry - where thousands of livestock raised in a single facility are the norm - have a national impact on our food supply and public health. Consumers, therefore, have a right to know what they are eating and where it comes from.

A growing demographic of people who want to know more details on the source of their food is influencing corporate decisions. Particularly in the realm of animal welfare, many brands are phasing out practices their customers recognize as inhumane. Following a national movement to stop the use of cages to confine laying hens, Kraft Foods recently announced it would source one million eggs from cage-free hens in 2011. Food Manufacturing summarizes points from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to explain what the change would imply:

  • U.S. factory farms confine about 280 million hens in cages so small, they can't even spread their wings. Extensive scientific research confirms this causes suffering.
  • Cage-free hens generally have two to three times more space per bird than caged hens. Cage-free hens may not be able to go outside and, like caged hens, may have parts of their beaks cut off, but they can walk, spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests—all behaviors permanently denied to hens crammed into cages.

Moving towards cage-free eggs looks to be a step up for factory farms, but it's hard to tell how much effort is being made or if it's just for show. Unless you're buying directly from a local farmer, consumers must rely on labels to know the history of their food, including how the animals were handled. But terms like "cage-free" are not strictly regulated, and it's easy for companies to market a practice they know consumers want without actually making substantial changes.

A lawsuit was filed this week that accuses Perdue Farms - the nation's third largest poultry producer - with falsely advertising its chicken as "humanely raised." A member of HSUS filed the suit "on behalf of consumers duped by Perdue Farms." The advocacy group details the trauma that chickens undergo at typical poultry slaughter operations, where they frequently experience stress and pain before they are killed. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, that requires rendering animals insensible to pain before slaughter, does not apply to poultry.

The Perdue lawsuit highlights the issue of large-scale producers' ability to exploit consumer demand for their profit. HSUS chief counsel Jonathan Lovvorn argues that "Perdue has simply slapped 'humanely raised' stickers on its factory farm products, hoping consumers won't know the difference."

It's evident that shoppers' preferences are facilitating change, but we must keep companies accountable for their claims and continue to promote transparency throughout our food system. Especially when factory farms have grown significantly bigger in the last decade (according to a new Food & Water Watch report), which squeezes more animals into small spaces, the push for truth and openness in food production is increasingly essential.

Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.

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